With All Thine Heart
By Ilan Stavans with Mordecai Drache
Rutgers University Press 2010, 21.95
MD: Why did you agree to delve into the Bible with me?
IS: The Bible has been with me—or is it I who has been with the Bible?—since my early childhood. The biblical stories were ubiquitous in my Mexico City home and at the Yiddish Shule in Mexique, the Jewish school I attended from kindergarten to high school. They were also recycled in comic strips, picture books, movies, and TV shows. At some point, I felt as if the characters in Genesis and Exodus were my friends.
MD: The academic world is increasingly specialized. Scholars know more and more about less and less. Yet you enjoy delving into a whole variety of topics. Don’t you fear being attacked for not being specialized enough in those areas you haven’t spent years researching?
IS: People are applauded in academia for being particularists. But I enjoy thinking deeply and broadly about a wide array of topics. I often depend on the guidance of specialists to understand those things. I would hold my mind hostage if I didn’t allow it to wander. I don’t like making mistakes on facts and avoid them as much as possible. But erring is human. Much worse is making the mistake of not daring…
MD: What do you think of the so-called new atheists, thinkers like Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion argues that a supernatural deity doesn’t exists, and Christopher Hitchens, who in God Is Not Great portrays religion as the source of all evil.
IS: Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens are probably more obsessed with God that the average believer. I frequently remember a saying a college teacher of mine in Mexico, who was a non-believer often repeated, tongue in cheek: “Soy ateo—gracias a Dios,” Thanks God I’m an atheist! MD: Do you remember when you read the Bible for the first time?
IS: I don’t. It was interwoven into our daily life. There were almost no autochthonous picture books when I was a child, certainly nothing remotely comparable to the plethora that exists today in the English-speaking world. These picture books recycle stories from all sorts of traditions, the Bible among them. Years ago I developed a passion to collect these types of books and have in my personal library copies of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s How Noah Chose the Dove, Mordecai Gerstein’s The White Ram, Jonah and the Two Great Fish, and The Shadow of a Flying Bird, as well as Elie Wiesel’s King Solomon and his Magic Ring. All of them are based on biblical episodes. I didn’t grow up with such material. Instead, my mother, when putting my brother, my sister, and I to bed, would retell folktales like “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Three Pigs” but invariably inserted an extemporaneous Jewish ingredient to them. One of the three pigs, for instance, the last and triumphant one, was Jewish. Plus, every so often my mother would also use the time to tell us a story from the Bible, but if memory serves me well these were few and far between. And, of course, in school I became acquainted with the biblical archetypes.
MD: Did you grow up religious?
IS: Not at all. My attraction to the Bible, then and more so now, is as a literary book and as a treasury of myths. Or better, as an extraordinary source of story-telling.
I left these friends behind in my twenties, as I became concerned with other things: finding a path of my own, defining my political views, etc. It was only when I had my own children that I—almost mechanically—returned to them and the Bible, again as a source of story-telling. But not until my first son Joshua did his Bar Mitzvah, in 2004, that I decided to read my way through from the Adam and Eve chapter to Deuteronomy, the major and minor Prophets, the Song of Songs, and the Book of Job. Believe it or not, except for passages here and there I had never read the Bible as a book.
I’m sure I’m no exception. The Bible is the book par excellance. In Western Civilization, one doesn’t need to read it in order to know it by heart. It comes to us by osmosis. Again, I’m neither an archeologist nor a biblical scholar. I’m just a student of literature with an interest in that old-fashion discipline called Philology. What attracts me to the Bible is how stories are told and characters developed. By characters I mean everything: man, Nature, and God. For as you know, not only is there a cast of millions in the Bible—the perfect inspiration for a Cecil B. De Mille blockbuster—but the flora and fauna are perceived in dramatically different fashion from the Eden episode to the destruction of the First Temple. Needless to say, the divine undergoes a similar transformation.
MD: In what sense?
IS: The world of biblical scholarship, defined by founding figures such as Robert Lowth (1710-1787), W. M. L. de Wette (1780-1849), Charles Augustus Briggs (1841-1913), and Julius Welhausen (1844-1918), and the full genealogical trees of successors they developed, brims with a hypothesis on when the Five Books of Moses and other Bible narratives were composed. It is called the Documentary Hypothesis. As James L. Kugel states in his book How to Read the Bible, even though some elements suggested by these theorists have fallen out of favor, the basic idea of the hypothesis has survived the scrutiny of scholars. Often the distinction between sections in the Bible has to do with the role God plays: a more personal entity roaming the earth, involved in the daily affair of His creatures in contrast with a more absent, uninvolved one. There is the author called J, who uses the Tetragrammaton (YHWH), and E, who uses the word Elohim. There is also the author of Deuteronomy, described as D, who is different from P, a priestly author who, according to some scholars, was the earliest of all and is responsible for composing the more legalistic material about rituals, sacrifices, dietary matters, etc. It is an exercise in detective work to locate the fingerprints of each of these authors. What is more, I’m fascinated by how our own emotional life as readers of the Bible is defined by what we find in these narratives.
MD: Isn’t it the other way around?
IS: Yes, but that is predictable, since readers always bring to a text their own expectation. No book is read the same way form twice. But I’m attracted to another dimension altogether. When I delve into Moby Dick, the description of the quest to kill the white whale carries my attention. Melville lets us follow the plot through a portrait of the internal and external universes: Captain Ahab’s psychological motivations and the complex world of whale hunting in the mid-19th century. The authors of the Bible aren’t only descriptive, allowing the reader to understand the motivation behind Abel’s murder, for instance, or King David’s lust for Batsheva. They’re also prescriptive, suggesting through role-models what is morally acceptable and what isn’t. In Western Civilization, that prescription is a kit that allows people to frame their emotional life. Take death as an example. Outside of religion, death is sheer nothingness.